2500 BC – 1500 BC

The Indus Valley civilization declined around the the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, giving way to Vedic civilization. An important aspect of Vedic religious life was the bard-priest who composed hymns, in praise of the gods, to be sung or chanted at sacrifices. This tradition continued until a sizable body of oral religious poetry had been composed.

This body of chanted poetry grew to massive proportions, and the best of the poems were compiled as an anthology called Rigveda, which was then canonized. The hymns of the Rigveda, the oldest Veda, are addressed to the elements of nature personified as deities, and are prayers for protection from calamities and for attainment of prosperity – material as well as spiritual.

The Rigveda came into being between 1500 BC and 500 BC. It was not committed to writing, but the text and the chanting formula were carefully handed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next, up to the present period. The poems in the Rigveda are arranged according to the priestly families who chanted and, presumably, had composed the hymns.

The Yajurveda and the Samaveda were composed after the Rigveda The Yajurveda, with portions in prose, is a manual, describing the procedures to be followed in the sacrifice. The Samaveda contains hymns to be sung by those who did the chanting. It is this Veda which is specifically connected with music in India. A fourth Veda, the Atharvaveda, replete with magical chants and incantations, was accepted as a Veda considerably later and is quite unrelated to the other three.

The Vedas are considered to be revealed literature. Sages and seers (rishis) with extraordinary powers directly ‘saw and received them’ – hence their unique authority and influence. In order to ensure the purity of the Vedas, the slightest change was forbidden, and there has been virtually no change in these texts for about 3,000 years. Each Veda has two parts: texts of the mantras and Brahmanas, which consist of rituals and related examples. Moreover, to each Brahmana is attached an Upanishad as well as an Aranyaka, both having a philosophical content.

The rishis, to whom the hymns of the Vedas appeared as revelations, are the authors of those hymns. The seven Rishis (saptarshis) are referred to in the Shatapatha Brahmana as Goutama, Bharadwaja, Vishwamitra, Jamadagni, Vashistha, Kashyapa and Atri. The seven Rishis are represented in the sky by the seven stars of the Great Bear. The richas or the hymns were often composed on the spur of the moment.

Vedic Music:

Vedic religion was based on performing sacrifices in order to propitiate the gods. Music formed an important part of the rituals, which structured the sacrifice. In fact, singing, instrumental music and dance were described as divine in Vedic literature; it was believed that they propitiated deities.

Vedic music is the earliest instance of the deep relationship between religion and music in India. Many features of this music later percolated in various ways and in different proportions into different kinds of Indian music, including Hindustani Art music. The Rigveda relied on recited hymns (richa). The musical chanting of the Samaveda employed more notes (finally settling on seven notes), and is said to be the source of the later secular and classical music. In fact, the word sama itself is a compound expression and includes two entities: the first component ‘sa’ refers to hymns, i.e. richa, and the second component, ‘ma’ refers to the musical notes.

Vedic music also included instrumental music of various types. Music was used mainly for two functions: to propitiate deities and to accompany sacrificial offerings. Both solo and choral music were in vogue. Four major forms of music were prevalent in Sama-gayan, taken as a whole. Each kind of music effected different changes in Vedic mantras as were perceived to be necessary by the concerned musician. The veena, tunav, dundubhi, bhoomi-dundubhi and talav were the prominent instruments – representing the four major instrumental categories, autophones, membranophones, aerophones and chordophones.

The singing of sama was accompanied by the veena in accordance with a procedure that connected body-movements, gestures and correct intonation in singing. Seated properly, the singer was to touch the middle phalanx of the fingers of the right palm with the right thumb according to the pitch of the note intended. A disciple learnt this procedure by imitating his preceptor in pitch, intonation as well as in finger movements.


No Vedic ritual was complete without the drinking of a sacred intoxicating liquor called soma. Soma was an integral part of Vedic sacrifices After first being offered as a libation to the gods, the remainder of the soma was consumed by the officiating priests (Brahmins). Soma-ras (soma juice) raised to the status of a deity in Rigveda, was endowed with hallucinatory effects and extraordinary powers to heal diseases. Soma drinking was held legitimate only after attaining a certain status in social and spiritual matters.

The Shiksha literature

As the early Indian music was based on ritual and mantra, correct pronunciation was of great significance. Often, even a slight mispronunciation signified ‘death’ instead of ‘life’! And yet, music makers in the Sama-gayan did not hesitate to bring about changes in the words of the mantras they sang! Freedom was so liberally enjoyed that rules were made to regularise these deviations because they added to the quality of music produced.

Shiksha is the first branch of Vedic learning. It deals with the science of correct pronunciation of vowels, consonants and syllables. Basically six aspects are dealt with: Varna (syllable), Swara (notes), Matra (duration), Bala (articulation), Sama (a kind of balance in the total utterance) and Santana (the spacing of the words). Some of the well-known Shikshas are Paniniya, Yagnyvalkya Vashisthi, Katyayani, Manduki and Naradiya, the last being associated with the sage, Narada.

Guru-Shishya Parampara

Music in India has been passed on in a tradition best described as Guru-Shishya Parampara (preceptor-disciple tradition). This method has occupied an important place in Indian culture. A guru is regarded as the metaphysical father of his disciple and is ranked higher than biological parents.

The Gurukul (guru’s dynasty or family) system dates back to the Vedic period. In the gurukul system of education, a pupil or shishya, after his initiation (sacred thread ceremony), lived in the house of his guru, or teacher, and studied the Vedas and other subjects under his guidance, for a period of 12 years. Gurus were expected to teach everything they knew to the disciple. The institution was accessible only to the upper classes. The gurukuls were well supported by kings who considered it their duty to make them financially viable.

There were four kinds of gurus: Acharya, Pravakta, Shrotriya and Adhyapak. It is from the samhita period that we have names of Acharyas such as Angiras, Garga, Atri, Brihaspati and Vasishtha. There were two types of shishyas: one, who paid fees to the Guru was known as acharya-bhaga; the other, who learnt by performing domestic chores in the guru’s house, was described as dharma-shishya.

The Gurukul was the direct precedent of the concept of gharana in Hindustani music. Of course, in a gharana the learning was confined to the scholastic and the performing arts, and there was no religious teaching.